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“Mama, They’ve Begun Again!”
Bronson Alcott and his transcendental friends hardly ever stopped talking. It left almost no time for mundane things like food and shelter
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
The group came first to Concord, and Alcott, given his way, would have established the farm there, within daily reach of Emerson; but Charles Lane would not have it. He was jealous of Emerson’s influence over Bronson and disapproved of his comfortable way of life. Not only was Lane the stronger character, but he had all the money—though he was reluctant to part with any. He paid off Alcott’s debts; afterward he said they were $300, but Alcott characteristically could only remember $175. Presently a suitable farm of ninety acres was discovered a few miles away, and Lane, after trying to persuade someone to purchase and donate the property, bought it for $1,800, naming it Fruitlands. Emerson acidly observed that anybody could be tranquil when endowed. “The schemers assumed that their whole doctrine was spiritual, whereas they always ended with saying, Give us land and money.”
At Fruitlands, the colonists proposed to live near to Nature, though not so near that they would trouble to plant their fields on her timetable. They would eat no meat, fish, or refined flour, no sugar but maple, no bread made with yeast. Milk and milk products were taboo, since they involved deprivation of the calf. Eating eggs prevented baby chicks. Wool was needed by sheep; leather involved slaughter. Rice and cotton came from parts of the world where slavery was practiced, and so did tea. It was not true, however, as gossip said, that they would eat only vegetables that “aspired” (grew above ground); they graciously exempted potatoes. They would not use animal manure on their fields, first because it was “filthy,” and second because it was “too stimulating to the soil,” presumably threatening the pasture with a nervous breakdown.
Their principles forbade the use of draft animals, which was slavery, but they wavered at first; they did some plowing with a horse, later with a team made up of a cow and an ox. Remorse overtook them and they shifted to the spade, though not very energetically; it was much more fun to stand under a tree and talk philosophy. Sent by her mother to see whether the men had stopped conversing and might be persuaded to come to dinner, an Alcott daughter reported dolefully, “Mama, they’ve begun again!” Luckily, their negligence in the field was not fatal. Lane still had a little money and could buy food when necessary.
Emerson resisted the pressure (which, we may be sure, did not come from Lane) to stay at Fruitlands, as he had previously resisted Brook Farm. Visiting briefly in July, when they were just getting under way, he promised only to come back later for another look.
While the men idled away the sunny hours, Abigail had to keep up an establishment of twelve people—six Alcotts, three Englishmen, two new recruits, and a hired man. Louisa May remarked acutely that “there is only one beast of burden here—my mother.” One of the recruits had demonstrated his fitness for the colony by living for a whole year on nothing but crackers and water; intoxicated with success, he had then lived another whole year on apples. A second recruit was a Miss Anna Page, but she did not last long; she was dismissed by Lane, reportedly for having gone to the house of a neighbor and there eaten the tail of a fish. Her protestations that “it was only a little one” were ignored. Miss Page, however, was an important influence while she lasted; she confirmed Mrs. Alcott in her long-standing, ever-growing belief that women in this world are put upon. Wherever I turn [Abigail wrote in her journal] I see the yoke on women in some form or other. … A woman may perform the most disinterested duties. She may “die daily” in the cause of truth and righteousness. She lives neglected, and dies forgotten.
But a man! But a man who never performs in his whole life one self-denying act, but who has accidental gifts of genius, is celebrated by his contemporaries while his name and his works live on from age to age.
Miss Page couldn’t have agreed with her more. “A woman,” she observed, “may live a whole life of sacrifice and at her death meekly say, ‘I die a woman.’ A man passes a few years in experiments in self-denial and simple life and he says, ‘Behold a God!’”
It is safe to guess that she was thinking of Charles Lane. Having jealously removed Bronson from Emerson at Concord, he now began to show signs of planning to remove him from his wife and daughters. The Englishman had once believed in marriage to the extent of fathering a flock of children, but he now advised that celibacy was the only proper state. There was a colony of Shakers nearby, and he would point out the strict separation of the sexes among them, with a reproachful eye fixed on the guilty Bronson. When Lane went off to Boston for a few days, the Alcotts held a midnight conference on the problem; it ended inconclusively with everyone bathed in tears.
Mrs. Alcott had finally had enough; she announced that she was leaving and taking the children and the Alcott furniture with her. Lane would willingly have seen her go, but he had wit enough to recognize that there was no one else to cook and clean, and her threat brought an end to the venture in celibacy.